Winter 2010: Books

I'm recommending an unusually small number of books this season—and they're almost all audiobooks, at that. This is partly because I've opened some books that I didn't like and so won't recommend, but mostly it's because the vast majority of my reading in the past few months has been research-reading for my own work. And while, for example, I found Witchcraft, Mysticism, and Magic in the Black World and Vampires, Burial, and Death interesting for my own purposes, I seldom recommend research reading to anyone who isn't, oh, researching. (But if you're interested, then check out the Research Library.)


Don't Get Too Comfortable

by David Rakoff




These two books are collections of Rakoff's articles (most or all of them previously published). He writes about light topics (ex. traveling on one of the last flights of the Concorde; acting in a guest role on a soap opera) and oddball subjects (ex. the gay-and-lesbian wing of the Republican Party; a cabaret show where male performers make balloon-animals with their genitals). And he writes with an acerbic wit and crisply original turn of phrase. I first came across his work on audiobook, and I laughed so hard I was afraid I'd drive off the road at one point. But the audio versions don't have all the essays that are in the books, so then I went and got the books. Having heard the way Rakoff reads his own work enabled me to hear his tone and phrasing when reading the remaining essays. I look forward to his next book, whenever that may be!


Dreams From my Father

by Barack Obama






Obama (who does a good job of narrating the audio version) wrote this book when he was an obscure private citizen. It's the memoir of an intelligent young man with an unconventional childhood, but a story which would probably only be of interest to a very small audience (most of them the author's friends, colleagues, and family) if he hadn't become such a prominent person years later. However, since he did become one, it's encouraging to see how multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic his background is. It's also reassuring to see in the pages of the book that he's a complex thinker, capable of analyzing complicated issues and of appreciating viewpoints and experiences that differ from his own. While listening to this book, I kept thinking about how extraordinary it was that its author had become the President of the United States, all things considered. Maybe we're entering the 21st century at last...


The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman




Although this was published as a Young Adult (YA) novel, it's won the Hugo Award (which is for adult fiction) as well as the YA-oriented Newbery Medal, and it's currently up for a Nebula Award (also adult), and as many adults as kids seem to be reading it. So it's evidently a book that appeals to people of all ages. After a deadly attack on his home, a baby is hidden in a graveyard; there he grows into boyhood, being raised by the ghosts who inhabit the place. I found the book creative, fun, and whimsical. Gaiman narrates the audiobook himself, and he does it well. An all round engaging experience.


Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond





Biologist Jared Diamond does a broad survey of human history from the last Ice Age to the present, looking at geography, ecology, and demography to explain why some societies developed more advanced technology (ex. steel weapons), enabling them to conquer others, as well as biological resistance to survive diseases that destroyed other societies. I've been interested in reading this book for a while, but have never squeezed it into my reading time; so I decided to listen to the audiobook. It's abridged, yet nonetheless very interesting and satisfying. I highly recommend it to anyone who, like me, has been meaning for several years (without actually getting around to it) to read this fascinating book.



Lethal Legacy

by Linda Fairstein




One of the most difficult things for a writer to do is maintain consistent quality over the long haul of a continuing series. My hat goes off to Linda Fairstein, who has so far managed to do it over the course of (to date) all eleven books in her Alexandra Cooper thriller series, featuring a New York City sex crimes prosecutor and two detectives with whom she works closely. This is one of the few thriller writers I read, partly because the writing is so good, and partly because she's one of the few who doesn't increase the body count just to show you how wicked the villain is—perhaps because Fairstein saw enough violence in real life, during her own career as a prosecutor in New York, to realize that even one murder is plenty horrific, thanks. Her latest novel, Lethal Legacy, is one of my favorites in the series so far, featuring a puzzling mystery that involves rare books and the New York Public Library. If you haven't tried Fairstein yet, you can start with any book in the series (I think I started with number seven, and I've mostly read them out of order). Indeed, you can start with this one!






by Diana Gabaldon






This was international-bestseller Diana Gabaldon's first novel. It's a compelling, romantic, high-adventure, historical fantasy tale set in 18th century Scotland. There's a passionate love story, battles and raids, intrigues and rivalries among the Highland clans, politics and war, courage and treachery, Scottish castles and English fortresses, terrific writing... This book has it all! But fair warning: I'd say Outlander can be read as a stand-alone novel; but it's actually the first book of a series (currently on volume 7) that I do not recommend (I quit after book #3). However, the entire series has been extremely successful, so presumably my reaction isn't common, and you may enjoy it. In any case, this first book is well worth reading—or re-reading!


The Reader

by Bernhard Schlink




This is such a short book, most people could probably read it in an evening. I happened to listen to the audiobook (read nicely by Campbell Scott) on a road trip. I'd already seen the movie (starring Kate Winslet), which I had found very powerful, and it turns out that the film is a very faithful adaptation of the novel. While listening to the book, I was reminded of Elie Wiesel's Night. In a similar way, this book looks far too short to cover its difficult subject matter; yet I was completely absorbed by the spare, straightforward storytelling, and when I finished the novel, I realized it was exactly the right length. And even knowing (since I'd seen the film) what the story's revelations would be, I still found them shocking as they unfolded. Now that's good writing!


And Then There Were Twelve

by Paul Cain




This is definitely my favorite book of the year! It's a memoir of my mother's paternal family. My Great Uncle Paul wrote it, with contributions from various family members. The book recounts how our ancestors came to America, fleeing famine and poverty in Ireland, made their way to Illinois, and settled there. My maternal grandfather was the eldest of twelve children (hence the title), born and raised on an Illinois farm in the early decades of the twentieth century. The essays in the book, written by Uncle Paul and a number of my great-aunts and cousins, are a collection of the twelve Cain kids' memories about their youth, their parents, and each other. The book also includes a family recipe for fruitcake that's been passed down for 150 years, and photos of the family and the farm from long ago. My Uncle Tommy and I both contributed essays remembering the eldest Cain sibling, my late grandfather, John. I treasure this volume, which is a great example of the wonderful projects that affordable self-publishing services and technology now make available to people.


The Unthinkable: Who Survives When
Disaster Strikes—and Why

by Amanda Ripley




In this fascinating and eye-opening book, award-winning journalist, Ripley explores how people react to disaster and sudden danger (the "unthinkable"), and why some people survive while others perish. (Ex. The vast majority of us do not react to disaster in the hysterically screaming and panic-stricken way we're always portrayed in Hollywood movies as reacting to it. In fact, many people die in disasters because they are so determined not to act on panic that they fail to act at all.) The book analyzes a number of disasters in detail, including some which I remember very well, such as the attack on the twin towers on 9/11, the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire (I was living about 20 miles from there when it happened), and a passenger plane-crash into the Potomac (only a few miles from where I was attending college at the time). Ripley reviews studies of human psychology and human behavior under stress, real examples of crowd behavior in a crisis, and the training undertaken by people whose job it is to deal with crises and disasters. The book's revelations astonished me, and its constructive recommendations about how individuals can improve their chances of survival were interesting—and often quite reassuring. (Ex. Who's most likely to survive a sudden fire in an office building? The person who bothered to learn where the fire exits are. Seriously.)





I rarely go to the cinema, because somehow, even in a mostly-empty theater for a mid-week matinee, I invariably wind up sitting directly in front of people who've come to the theater to carry on a long conversation (and who take bitter offense if I turn around and suggest they wait until after the movie to discuss the meaning of life, the universe, and everything), and directly behind someone who's determined to narrate the entire plot for the rest of us. ("I think Luke's going to confront Darth Vader now... no, no, wait! Maybe he's going to try to free the hostages instead? What's he DOING now? Oh, he's pulling out his light saber. Good idea, Luke!" And so on.) So I prefer to watch DVDs in the comfort and blissful silence of my home. Therefore, everything I recommend here can be found on DVD.


Easy Virtue





Adapted from a Noel Coward play, this engaging and elegant movie is set in the late 1920s. A pleasant but callow young Englishman surprises his family by bringing home an American bride to their country estate. The film starts off as a standard but enjoyable riff on the modern American wife's fish-out-of-water experiences in the rigid lifestyle of this dysfunctional upper class English family; but it gradually develops into a much more interesting story of strained relationships and searching hearts. Jessica Biel holds her own amidst a terrific British cast, playing an interesting and individualistic woman who's made the mistake of marrying a conventional young man who finds her exciting but can't really appreciate or understand her. Colin Firth gives a lovely, understated performance as the sardonically witty father-in-law who has been lost and adrift since surviving the horrors of WWI. Kristin scott Thomas is engaging and edgy as the judgmental, thorny mother-in-law. The film contains a few twists and surprises, and the ending is very satisfying without being too perfectly tidy.







Adapted from the Robert Harris novel, this WWII spy thriller focuses on the British codebreakers whose work was so top secret that their achievements weren't even acknowledged until decades after the war. One of the greatest intelligence secrets of WWII was that the Brits had cracked a supposedly impenetrable German cipher system know as "Enigma." The movie's plot successfully tackles a complex and compelling story in which the Enigma signals for the German U-boat fleet in the Atlantic become indecipherable to the Brits soon after the mysterious girlfriend of a brilliant and mentally unstable codebreaker goes missing. The cast includes a terrifically sinister and ironic performance from Jeremy Northam as a spymaster looking for leaks among the codebreakers, as well as strong performances from Kate Winslet, Matthew MacFadyen, and Tom Hollander.


A Bit of Fry and Laurie





This charming sketch-comedy series from the early 1990s has about 25 half-hour episodes featuring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. The second and third seasons are the strongest, in my opinion, but the first and fourth are also fun. Many of the sketches poke fun at then-current events, and others are continuing riffs on recurrent themes and characters. In particular, Fry and Laurie seem to share my love of spy films, and they do two separate series of continuing-character sketches that spoof the genre. Laurie is a talented musician as well as an actor and comedian, so the episodes also often include musical spoofs of popular singers or hit songs. Overall, the comedy here is witty and off the wall.






This is a delightful, elegant, exotic heist film with a witty script and a terrific cast. The seductive and mischievous Melina Mercouri plays a thief who seduces her old lover, also a thief (and played by a debonair young Maximillian Schell), into helping her plot a seemingly impossible heist: She wants to steal a priceless artifact from the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. To pull it off, they'll need specialized help, so they start recruiting an eccentric team of accomplices, including the wonderfully acerbic Robert Morley, a couple of circus performers, and Peter Ustinov—who won an Oscar for his delightful performance in this movie.


Hideous Kinky





This gorgeously-filmed movie is set in Morocco, and every frame of the film is filled with color, life, and texture. It's the story of Julia (Kate Winslet), a young Englishwoman who drags her two young daughters around North Africa on her vague quest to study with a sufi master. Although the story isn't fast-moving, the film always maintains excellent pace and energy, thoroughly holding your attention. The script is very well handled, ensuring that we understand a great deal about the story without it having to be laboriously spelled-out, and it skillfully eschews various predictable or plodding scenes that a lesser writer might have inflicted on the audience. And there are numerous wonderful performances here. Kate Winslet is earthy, engaging,and luminous in the lead role; the two little girls who play her struggling daughters are amazingly believable and appealing; and her Moroccan boyfriend is played with gentle charm.







If you've never seen this high-adventure historical fantasy, or if you haven't seen it since the 1980s, or if you've never shown it to your kids, then rent it! A very young Matthew Broderick plays Philippe, a slippery thief with a purely practical streak of cowardice. After escaping from the dungeons of medieval Aquila, in Italy, he unwillingly gets caught up in the deadly enmity between an evil bishop (played with delightful dastardliness by John Wood) and a mysterious dark knight named Navarre (Rutger Hauer). The knight is accompanied by an even more mysterious traveling companion (Michelle Pfeiffer), who only appears at night... while Navarre only appears by day. Before long, the party is joined by a drunken priest (Leo McKern) who holds the key to banishing the curse that has condemned Navarre and his enigmatic lady to a half-life—but the plan can only succeed with Philippe's help.


Like Stars On Earth

(In Hindi with English subtitles)



Like Stars


An Indian boy suffers from undiagnosed dyslexia in an overcrowded and rigid educational system that doesn't recognize the problem or accommodate individuals, until an unconventional teacher changes the kid's life and opens the eyes of those around him. Though that's a standard (even stereotypical) story in American films, you'd need to be familiar with Bollywood cinema to appreciate just how unusual and fresh a film this is for its genre; and it's no surprise that it was made by Aamir Khan, a Bollywood actor, producer, and (now) director who has a well-earned reputation for breaking new ground. Although it's slow moving and most of the characters are stereotypes, the film is very watchable, sincere, and engaging, and it particularly shines in its exuberant portrayal of children, whether they're typical schoolboys or kids with special needs. But the "star" that shines mostly brightly here is Darsheel Safary, who plays the story's eight year old protagonist. His performance seems completely natural and spontaneous, as if we're entering a troubled kid's life rather than watching a child actor perform; and his growing anguish as he encounters constant frustration and failure in struggling with his undiagnosed disability is truly heartbreaking—to such an extent that I couldn't possibly have turned off the movie until seeing him triumph over his problems and smile again.

I've Loved You So Long
Il ya longtemps que je t'aimes

(In French with English subtitles)





In this French film, British actress Kristin Scott Thomas (who's bilingual and lives in France) plays a French woman who moves in with her sister's family after being released from prison. I rented the movie because I think Thomas is a terrific actress and the reviews were good; but I thought that it sounded dark and dreary, and that I'd probably quit after 20 minutes. Actually, I enjoyed it very much. It's a very original and well-handled film, made with a delicate touch. A quiet family drama that often has the tension of a psychological thriller, it's enhanced by heartfelt characters, complicated relationships, and a very strong lead performance from Kristin Scott Thomas.







This is a charming, sweet, often funny story of friendship between two likeable characters growing into love, and love growing into commitment. Rob Morrow plays a compulsive artist in New York who has Tourette's Syndrome, and the always-wonderful Laura Linney plays his best friend's ex-girlfriend. As the two of them grow steadily closer, their mutual loyalty to the friend/ex makes their relationship complicated, as does the artist's deep insecurity about himself as a viable love interest. One of the reasons the film works so well is that it avoids the usual schtick and pitfalls of so many romantic comedies. The characters are always honest about their feelings and candid with each other, and all three characters in the love triangle are good people trying their hardest to find the right path in life.



a.k.a. Spooks





MI-5 is Britain's domestic security-and-intelligence service. Known as Spooks in the U.K., the first few seasons of this show are riveting. The plots are varied and surprising, and the continuing characters are flawed and interesting. Peter Firth plays the ruthless, shrewd, and ironic spymaster in charge of MI-5, and (as actors come and go throughout several seasons) the revolving cast includes Matthew MacFayden as a driven team-leader who can't figure out how to have a private life, Rupert Penry-Jones as a brilliant spy who's a loose cannon, Keely Hawes as a young officer struggling with the moral ambivalence of her work, Raza Jaffrey as one of the few Moslems in the service, Nicola Walker as a lonely intelligence analyst, and David Oyelowo as a spy with a spending problem. Unfortunately, the quality of the scripts enters a nosedive at the start of Season 5 and never pulls out of it, and I gave up watching by early Season 7, by which time all the interesting characters (and actors) have left, apart from Peter Firth. But the first four years of the series are compelling—no, addictive!


Monty Python's Flying Circus





Although I'd seen bits and pieces of this classic British sketch-comedy TV show over the years, watching this complete set of DVDs is the first time I've ever watched the entire series. It's very funny, creative, and engaging, especially in the first couple of seasons. Admittedly, the final season was so weak that I didn't even bother watching the final two discs. But in its first three years, this show was brilliant. And what's really amazing here is that it still seems so fresh, original, and inventive forty years after it was made. At its best, it holds up strikingly well not just as something that hadn't been done before, but also as something that really hasn't been done since—at least not this well, certainly.


Shake Hands With the Devil

(In English and French,
with English subtitles)



Shakes Hands


Assigned to lead the United Nations troops in Rwanda in 1993, Canadian Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire (Roy Dupuis) tries desperately—and unsuccessfully—to obtain international help for the victims of the genocide that soon commences there. The film is based on Dallaire's award-winning autobiography detailing the horrific events of mass murder in Rwanda. And, as per the portrayal in the film, Dallaire was deeply traumatized after Rwanda; he recovered when he found a new mission, which was to tell the world what had happened there, in hope of preventing it from ever happening again. Roy Dupuis, an accomplished French-Canadian actor, gives perhaps the best performance of his career in this powerful movie (filmed on location in Rwanda) which does an excellent job of handling a very difficult story.


State of Play





In this 6-part British miniseries, a married politician is having an affair with his assistant when she (apparently) commits suicide. A team of London reporters find evidence that the woman may have been murdered, and their investigation leads them into a complex web of lies and corruption in government and big business. This is a well-executed, well-paced thriller with a strong script, and it benefits from terrific performances by a fine cast, including: Bill Nighy as the ironic editor of a major London newspaper, Kelly MacDonald as a young journalist, Marc Warren as a dim-witted sleazebag with key information, and James McAvoy as a freelance reporter. One of the things I enjoyed most was the portrayal of the various clever ways the reporters get information during their investigation, since they can't force anyone to give it to them and they've got to stay on the right side of the law. (Don't confuse this engrossing BBC miniseries with the Hollywood movie—based on it and using the same title—that was released in 2009, starring Russell Crowe.)


Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip



Studio 60


This series was written by Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, who wrote most of that show's episodes during its first four years (which were also its best years). Studio 60 is about a writer (Matthew Perry) and a director (Bradley Whitford) who co-produce a cutting-edge late-night comedy-sketch show for a major television network. The characters struggle with pressure from the network to achieve top ratings and rake in advertising money while meanwhile trying to produce a quality show of integrity and intelligence. They wrestle with substance abuse, strained personal relationships, professional rivalries, and the current-events of their era. And, true to Sorkin's usual standards, they do it all with witty, articulate, fast-paced dialogue and in the context of intelligent, compelling storylines that skillfully combine comedy and drama. Since Studio 60 is about putting on a television show, rather than about running the country, it's not as viscerally compelling as The West Wing was; but it's darned good, and I'm disappointed that it lasted only one season.

Trial By Jury





Although it's one of the rare commercial flops of the Law & Order franchise, this is an intelligent and compelling show that should have lasted for many years, rather than only one-half season. Trial By Jury features Bebe Neuwirth as a New York prosecutor, and it focuses on the challenges of preparing cases for trial and the potential pitfalls of prosecuting cases in court. In one episode, for example, Neuwirth's character is assigned to prosecute a ten year old multiple-homicide case after the evidence has been disallowed and the witnesses have died or disappeared; in another episode, she has to convince a jury that a murder has been committed even though the cops can't find a body. Neuwirth is terrific in the lead role, and there's a strong supporting cast, including Jerry Orbach in the early episodes (sadly, he died soon after moving over to this series from his old beat on the original Law & Order) and Oz's Kirk Acevedo as a young Latino detective who works for the D.A.'s office.


Two Fat Ladies





In this charming British show, which is part travelogue and part foodie-heaven, Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson are a couple of eccentric ladies who travel around England on an old motorcycle-with-sidecar, brandishing antique cooking gear and preparing sumptuous feasts. In one episode they cook wild-game dishes in a Scottish castle for a hunting party; in another, they prepare a Christmas feast for the Winchester boys choir. They make afternoon tea for a cricket team, dinner for the Cambridge University rowing team, and a picnic for lighthouse keepers. They cook for nuns in Ireland, barristers in Lincolns Inn, priests in Westminster Cathedral, Gurkhas in a barracks, and Boy Scouts in the wilderness. At each location, they take time out to explore the area: They go fishing off the coast of Cornwall, cruise down the canals of Shropshire, and shoot game in Scotland. While cooking their cream-filled, alcohol-doused, butter-oozing dishes in a series of exotic kitchens (and sometimes over campfires), they exchange anecdotes about their colorful lives. Sadly, Jennifer Paterson was diagnosed with cancer and died while they were filming the third season. The series didn't continue without her, perhaps because the entertaining dialogue between the two ladies was such a central feature of the show.







After the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, they forced all the Jews in Warsaw and the surrounding villages to move into Warsaw's centuries-old Jewish ghetto, a neighborhood far too small for all the people thus crammed into it. Then, under the auspices of Hitler's "Final Solution," with the explicit goal of exterminating every last Jew in Europe, the Germans started emptying the ghetto by loading the residents onto trains bound for death camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. This powerful and well-researched film portrays the uprising of 1943, when a handful of Jews inside the ghetto mounted an armed resistance and held off the German army for longer than some nations had. Ultimately, the Germans destroyed the ghetto (by bombing and burning until there was nothing left), and only a handful of Jewish fighters escaped—which terrifying feat is also portrayed here. Two of the survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising served as consultants during the making of this movie, which was based on memoirs of the period (including theirs) and on historical documents that were buried in milk cans inside the ghetto (by people who did not survive) and only discovered decades later. The cast contains a number of familiar faces, including Stephen Moyer, Hank Azaria, David Schwimmer, Cary Elwes, and Jon Voight. (My only caveat about the film is that all the American and English actors speak with fake German and Polish accents, and it's rather distracting. I think the film would have worked better without that affectation.)


The World of Suzie Wong





I recently watched this for the first time since I was a teenager, and, boy, it holds up really well! Nancy Kwan gives a stand-out performance as Suzie Wong, an engaging and unusual character trying to survive on the streets of Hong Kong; and the relationship that develops between her and the middle-aged artist (William Holden) trying to reshape his life develops believably and held my interest throughout the film. Additionally, Hong Kong is filmed so beautifully in this movie, it's a delight to watch.







In 1879, approximately 140 British soldiers held off an attacking Zulu army of thousands at a little outpost in South Africa. This was a stunning military feat not only when you consider how catastrophically outnumbered the British were, but also because the Zulu army was famously experienced and disciplined. A number of the British survivors were awarded the Victoria Cross for extreme bravery. This movie dramatization of the Battle of Rorke's Drift was filmed on location in Natal, and it's one of the great battle films of all time. It was also Michael Caine's first starring role—and, unlike the roles we associate with him later in his career, here he (convincingly) plays an upperclass officer with a toffee accent... one of only two officers at this minor outpost, both of them inexperienced, when they realize that they're about to be attacked by a skilled military force at least twenty times the size of their own garrison.



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Autumn 2010: Books

In addition to my usual research reading for my own work, as well as my much-indulged addiction to cookbooks and to Neolithic history/archaeology books, I've read some good books this spring/summer that I hereby recommend.


Chinatown Beat
Year of the Dog

by Henry Chang


These are the first two books of a contemporary noir mystery series set in New York's Chinatown. The series protagonist, Jack Yu, is an NYPD detective and a first generation Chinese-American. The books portray the underbelly of Chinatown (organized crime, gang violence, drugs, prostitution, extortion) and the struggles of Chinese immigrants, rather than being a feel-good series; but it's done well, rather than being sensationalistic or exploitative. The author was raised in Chinatown, and his well-crafted prose is rich with cultural information and sensory details about life in that community.


Free: The Future of A Radical Price

by Chris Anderson


I previously recommended this author's first book, The Long Tail, about the changes in the marketplace, for content providers and for consumers, brought about by new technologies and distribution methods.  In Free, Anderson discusses the history, current use, and future possibilities of profitably setting a $0.00 price point for various goods and services. Like his previous book, I found this one accessible and interesting, and it has influenced my thinking about changes and possibilities in my own profession, though it certainly covers a wide range of industries.


Your Hate Mail Will be Graded:
A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2009

by John Scalzi


Scalzi is a bestselling and award-winning science fiction writer, as well as a nonfiction writer (I recommend his Rough Guide to the Universe if you want a good general astronomy book) and former journalist. He's also been blogging for over a decade, and his blog gets about 40,000 hits daily—so you can safely assume it's a lot more interesting than most blogs. This book is a volume of his best essays from the blog's first ten years, and it's a terrific collection. His writing style is engaging and lively, and the essays are intelligent, often funny,  always opinionated, and very original. This collection—which covers a wide range of social, scientific, political, artistic, and absurd topics—won a Hugo Award in 2009.


Helen of Troy:
Goddess, Princess, Whore

by Bettany Hughes


The author is a historian who has made a number of excellent documentaries for British television (which are available from Netflix) about the ancient Mediterranean world. In this absorbing book, she examines Helen of Troy—of whom no historical record or evidence exists, though her legend is world-famous thanks to Homer's Iliad. What would life have been like for a Greek queen in the Bronze Age? Under what circumstances might she have wound up in Troy? What might her fate have been there? The book also explores how the interpretation of Helen has changed in various cultures and eras. A terrific read for anyone interested in the Bronze Age, and/or in how a legend (and a legendary woman, in particular) mutates based on the teller, the listener, and the agenda.


The Housekeeper's Diary

by Wendy Berry


The author was the housekeeper at the private country residence of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana for 7 years. In the endless flood of books that have been published about the Wales' unhappy marriage, what's interesting about this book, now 15 years old, is its detailed portrayal of a lifestyle that is bizarrely foreign to most of us—one in which paid servants are present at all times inside one's own home and witness to virtually every moment of one's domestic life. The book portrays a contemporary family that was so privileged that... they had no privacy at all. Hired staff whom Charles and Diana scarcely knew witnessed nearly every moment of their lives as a married couple and as parents, and knew about every unwitnessed moment (it seems that no one in that house ever had sex, wept, threw up, chatted intimately, argued, or blew their noses without the servants being aware of it).


The Piano Teacher

by Janice Y.K. Lee


In this novel which is darkly evocative of the WWII Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, a naïve English wife in post-war colonial society gets tangled up in the guilt and disgrace that various longtime Hong Kong residents are struggling with as they live with (or try to escape) the consequences of their wartime experiences. In particular, the book is wonderfully rich with the sensory details of life in Hong Kong during the war and post-war years.


The View From the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and A Life in Hollywood

by Nicholas Meyer

This is a well-written and entertaining autobiography by the writer and director who is probably best known for his association with the better Star Trek films (he wrote and directed The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country, and worked on The Voyage Home). Meyer also directed several other films that I really enjoyed (the delightful comedy, Volunteers, starring Tom Hanks; The Deceivers, a compelling historical adventure in India; Time After Time, in which H.G. Wells pursues Jack the Ripper), and he is additionally an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and a New York Times bestselling novelist. The book is an enjoyable look at his experiences in publishing and filmmaking, and it contains some laugh-out-loud anecdotes about his misadventures.


Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea:
Why the Greeks Matter

by Thomas Cahill


This is one of Cahill's "Hinges of History" series, which I really enjoy. The series consists of relatively short, engaging books in which the author examines a particular historical moment or culture which has helped shape our current era (such as his bestselling How the Irish Saved Civilization, about Irish culture and literacy during the Dark Ages in Europe). In this one, Cahill explores ancient Greece, and its artistic, cultural, linguistic, and political influence on us more than 2,000 years later. It's a particularly good read for someone like me, whose formal education managed to largely omit Greek mythology and literature.


Autumn 2010




I rarely go to the cinema, because somehow, even in a mostly-empty theater for a mid-week matinee, I invariably wind up sitting directly in front of people who've come to the theater to carry on a long conversation (and who take bitter offense if I turn around and suggest they wait until after the movie to discuss the meaning of life, the universe, and everything), and directly behind someone who's determined to narrate the entire plot for the rest of us. ("I think Luke's going to confront Darth Vader now... no, no, wait! Maybe he's going to try to free the hostages instead? What's he DOING now? Oh, he's pulling out his light saber. Good idea, Luke!" And so on.) So I prefer to watch DVDs in the comfort and blissful silence of my home. Therefore, everything I recommend here can be found on DVD.

I wound up getting sucked into various excellent series this spring/summer, so I've only got a small number recommendations this time... since each of these represents many hours of viewing pleasure.


Black Adder

This clever British comedy series comprises four seasons (with six half-hour episodes per season). Rowan Atkinson plays an unscrupulous member of the Blackadder family at different eras in the family's history, from the medieval period all the way through to WWI. Although enjoyable, the first season is the weakest, and the show gets progressively better with each season. BlackAdder as the resentful personal butler to the half-witted Prince of Wales in late 18th century Britain, in season three, is hilarious. And season four, in which BlackAdder is a sarcastic army captain awaiting death in the trenches of WWI, is some of the best anti-war comedy I've ever seen, with an unexpectedly moving finale. Rowan Atkinson is terrific in the lead role, the rest of the cast is always excellent, and there are regular appearances throughout the seasons by some of my favorite British performers, such as Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, and Miranda Richardson.


In Search of the Trojan War

Originally broadcast in 1985, this 6-part series by historian Michael Wood is utterly compelling despite now being 25 years old (and thus not including more-recent developments). By traveling around the Greek Isles and Asia Minor to explore various Bronze Age ruins, landscapes, and archives, Wood examines the historical background of Homer's Iliad. As a junkie of the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, I found this series riveting as Wood pokes through the layers of ancient walled cities, reconstructs the luxurious painted palaces of the Bronze Age warrior-kings, translates clay tablets written by Hittite diplomats, examines the careers of legendary archaeologists, and serves as our guide to The Age of Heroes. Wood, whose work was first recommended to me by my mom, has done other excellent historical documentary series, too, and also written good books. Look him up on Netflix or BN.com.


In Search of Shakespeare

Speaking of which, here's another Michael Wood documentary that I really enjoyed this year. Wood's four-part series about the bard from Stratford explores the influences on William Shakespeare's work and proposes theories about the many unknown aspects of his life. It's fantastically interesting for a fan of Shakespeare (which I am) and/or a fan of the Tudor period (which was a dangerous and complicated era in Britain). It's also lots of fun, since Wood's sojourn through Shakespeare's world is accompanied by a troop of Royal Shakespeare players performing Will's plays in various historic venues.





I don't watch TV programs when they're broadcast, since that would involve dealing with an airing schedule and with commercials. So although this popular television series is currently in its sixth season, I've only watched it through its fourth season so far (and am looking forward to the fifth season's DVD release this fall). Although Bones is nominally based on the series of suspense novels by Kathy Reichs, the only thing the TV show has in common with the books (some of which I've read and enjoyed) is that both feature a female protagonist who is a forensic anthropologist. The heroine of the TV series (played engagingly by Emily Deschanel) is a beautiful young world-famous anthropologist and bestselling author who works in a gorgeous state-of-the-art lab-and-museum in Washington, D.C., and who engages in action-packed crime-fighting with her hunky FBI partner, played with great charm by David Boreanaz (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel). As Hollywood-awful as that premise sounds, it's nonetheless an extremely enjoyable show. Although it often deals with dark subject matter, Bones is very humorous and offbeat, there are a lot of quirky characters, and the stories and solutions are very interesting. Most of the regular characters are supposed to be intellectually brilliant and very well-educated, and the show's sophisticated dialogue usually makes that credible. Above all, the close, complicated, and often exasperated relationship between the two lead characters is wonderful. I think the first couple of seasons are the best, but the show has so far remained engaging for four years, and I look forward to watching the remaining seasons.


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